A pastor spoke to a young lawyer who had visited his church several times. He was very interested in obtaining eternal life. He admitted that he was a sinner and needed a savior. He believed Jesus is the Son of God and that Jesus endured crucifixion, then rose from death to win life for all who believe. Then, although they were not talking about money at all, he added: “But there is one idea I can’t stand – tithing. I don’t make that much money now, so it’s not a big issue yet, but in a few years, I’m going to be making a lot of money, and there’s no way I’m going to give away 10 percent of it. I could never give away that much money.” Is this man a Christian? Will his brand of faith unite him to Christ, so that he gains eternal life?
That is the question James addresses through much of his epistle. He states the question starkly in 2:14. This question addressed a real issue in James’s church, and it remains a real issue today. Many of us know people like the lawyer. They accept the biblical diagnosis of the human condition. They understand how Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection remedy their estrangement from God. They go to church from time to time. They like to read and talk about spiritual things. They know the central teachings of Christian faith. They are pleasant folks. They seem to live decent lives, though they may indulge a vice or two. When conversation turns to Jesus or what happens after death, they sound like believers. They adhere to orthodox, evangelical theology.
Yet there is nothing distinctively Christian about their behavior. They may be decent neighbors and may perform a little community service. But there is no real self-sacrifice, no costly obedience, no good deed that goes against their grain, nothing that challenges their well-designed life.
When James 2 asks what is the benefit of that kind of faith, he is preparing his concluding remarks on a topic that already gained his attention in chapter 1. The next passage, 2:1-13, maintains the theme. James’s concern for the treatment of the poor, begun in 1:27, continues in 2:1-6. Compassion for the poor includes care for their spirit. We treat then with the dignity they deserve as humans and Christian brothers. James tells his readers their treatment of the poor is no trivial matter. It is part of the “royal law,” to “love your neighbor as yourself” (2:8). James closes the section by telling his readers they will be judged by the law (2:12).
Perhaps some in the church were surprised to hear that they were still liable to judgment. They thought they were saved by faith and therefore free from judgment. But James, as a true pastor, shredded their false sense of security so they could see themselves as they really were.
James begins the process with a question: “What good is it [or “What is the benefit”], my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” (v. 14). That is, does the kind of faith that affirms orthodox theology, but produces no distinctively Christian deeds, save? Does that faith lead to justification before God the Judge? It is an old question: Does every brand of faith save? Is there a faith that does not? Does an evangelical confession of faith, with nothing more, make one right with God?
These are contemporary questions. When James faced it, he answered directly. There is a “faith” that does not save. It is the faith that adheres to orthodox theology but has no actions. The literal translation of verse 14b is quite stark: “Faith can’t save him, can it?” In Greek, there is a way to ask questions that shows the author anticipates the answer no; James uses that form, making his position clear: No, “faith” cannot save the person who has no works.
Once James states his theme – that faith without works cannot save – he illustrates it with four case studies. We will consider two in this study and the last two in the next study. Case #1: Faith without deeds of compassion for the needy brother does that brother no good. Thus “faith without works is dead (vv. 15-17).
Here James sketches a realistic scene with great economy of words. He pictures a brother or sister who is poor, even by ancient standards. When James says someone is “without clothes” (v. 15), he doesn’t mean naked. More likely “without clothes” indicates someone is wearing only an inner tunic (underwear) or is dressed inadequately. His clothes are either few or ragged, not enough to keep warm. He lacks “daily food,” as well. He has not yet received the answer to the prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Either he is hungry that day, or, more likely, he chronically lacks food.
Jesus says genuine faith meets the needs of the poor. It is not content to say, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but do nothing. Real faith knows that on the last day, when Jesus judges all people, He will mark whether we did or did not help the needy whom we met (Matt. 25:36-40). The kind of faith that offers warm wishes and trite advice is no good on the last day (Matt. 25:41-43).
James anticipates a plausible objection to the message of verses 15-17. Someone will view faith and good works roughly the way we view spiritual gifts. James lets an imaginary critic speak: “But someone will say, ‘You have faith; I have deeds’” (v. 18). James replies, “Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that – and shudder” (vv. 18-19).
The objection says faith and works are like spiritual gifts; some have one, some have the other. Faith is even called a gift in Romans 12:3 and 1 Corinthians 12:9. Works are never called a gift, but Peter does divide spiritual gifts into two categories, gifts of speech and gifts of service (1 Peter 4:11). As the objection sees it, those who offer food and clothing to the hungry and the ragged have a gift for good works. So someone will say, “Good works are for those with the gift, but my gift is knowledge or faith, not action.
If someone says, “I believe in God,” James replies, “I will believe you have true faith when it manifests itself in deeds.” That is, if someone claims to have faith, but only has orthodox theological ideas, it proves nothing. James uses the “faith” of demons to illustrate his point. Demons have at least some orthodox theological ideas. They are monotheistic. They believe that there is one God and that Jesus is His unique Son. Yet demons are tormented and terrified by their beliefs. They shudder when they think of God. They are not saved by their theological orthodoxy. The truth torments and terrifies them, for they do not add love of God to their “Knowledge” of Him.
Millions have a dead, orthodox faith. They attend church frequently and know the gospel intellectually. They even live morally. But the thought of meeting the eternal God creates terror. John says perfect love (for God) “drives out fear” (1 John 4:18). True faith, faith that knows and trusts God as He presents Himself in the gospel, casts out servile fear. It grants peace with God, a desire for His Word, and the capacity to put away sin – a capacity that shows itself in stronger relationships and better behavior at work and at play.
James’s critique of false faith feels like bad news. But as the next section of James will show, there is good news too. Real faith does express itself in acts of love. It does care for the needy. Christians so not simply grit their teeth and resolve to keep more laws. New behavior flows from a new heart. We fail so often. But real faith does lead to good deeds. They are the fruit of new life in Christ.
James 2:14-19 Study Questions:
In verse 14, James points to the insufficiency for salvation of a certain kind of faith, when he asks, “Can that faith save him?” Is James questioning the doctrine of salvation by faith? Why or why not? If not, what is he affirming quite strongly in this verse?
What comments does James’s imaginary character make to the brother or sister who is lacking food or clothing (vv. 15-16)? What attitude seems to lurk behind these comments? What does this person “who says he has faith” fail to do?
What point is James making in verse 17 about “faith by itself”? Does such faith actually exist? Describe in your own words what such a kind of “faith” might look like in today’s context.
What motivation seems to be behind the objection that James anticipates in verse 18? In what way does this objection seek to make a separation that James immediately rejects as invalid?
How would you characterize the belief of the demons in God, which James mentions in verse 19? In what sense do they “believe” in God? What do they lack, as part of this belief?
What in this passage seems objectionable – or dangerous – to you? Why do you think that is the case? What reactions does James intend to draw out from his audience?
Most of would say we can obey the Bible partially. “All of nothing” seems like the wrong category. After all, we are tempted daily and sometimes succumb, so we would say we try to obey God, but find only partial success. For example, we try to control our tongues, but we all fail at times; our success is partial (James 3:2-8). Both theology and our experience tell us our progress in holiness is slow and incomplete (Rom. 7:14-25). Yet James 2 says there is a sense in which obedience is all or nothing.
For James, obedience is the proof that a profession of faith is genuine. Genuine believers, we recall, pass three tests of true religion. They (1) keep a tight rein on their tongues, (2) look after orphans and widows in their distress, and (3) keep themselves from the pollutions of the world. That is, true Christians control their speech. They care for the poor and the needy out of pure mercy, without expecting anything in return. They remain in the world, where they eat, dress, and travel like other members of their society. Yet they shun the sinful customs and the godless values of their day. They “test everything” and “hold fast what is good” (1 Thess 5:21).
True religion is visible in daily life, both in big, public events, and in small acts of faithfulness or unfaithfulness. For example, James asks us to examine the way we treat church visitors. If we favor the rich, giving them the last good seat or the warmest greeting, and if we coolly let the poor man sit on the floor, we fail the tests of true religion. The small disposition we call favoritism mistreats the poor, misuses the tongue, and succumbs to worldliness. Favoritism is also foolish because it contradicts the character of God. James says, the rich are often hostile to the faith. They pursue wealth and exploit the poor. But God gives His kingdom to the poor.
As we have seen, favoritism is foolish and worldly, though it seems such a small sin and doesn’t seem to hurt anyone much. Favoritism is the antithesis of love for the needy and for neighbors (2:8-9). Anyone who loves his neighbor does well and fulfills “the royal law.” But favoritism violates the King’s law, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (v.8). Anyone who shows favoritism sins and is “convicted by the law” (v. 9).
“Love your neighbor” is the royal law in two senses. It is the law of the kingdom, and it is the law of the King Jesus. Love your neighbor is essential to Old Testament law. God told Moses, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). The law of Moses often looks to the needs of the poor as it forbids unfair treatment of anyone (Lev. 19:15). But Jesus takes love to its apex. He says, “Love you neighbor,” and He shows us how to love our neighbor. “Love your neighbor” is both what the King says and the way the King lives. By His incarnation, Jesus became our neighbor. By His sacrifice on the cross and by His resurrection, He demonstrated the extent of His compassion for us.
The point James makes in verses 10-11 is, if we break one law, we do indeed violate the whole law. That is, if someone violates just one law, he is accountable for the whole, because God gives the whole. If the very God of the universe says, “Do not murder,” then deliberately murderous thoughts, words, or deeds violate not only His will; they violate His person – His tole as Lord of Lords – as well. In this sense, obedience is all or nothing. Further, any mistreatment of a neighbor breaks all laws for neighbor, since all laws aim at their good.
Using, as examples, murder and adultery – the central moral commands – James 2:11 exposes the danger in the mindset that is content with partial obedience. This is the problem: If people pick and choose what they obey, then they are still very much their own god. All commands are united by this principle: God gave them. If we say, “I will follow the law about murder, but will not follow the law about adultery,” then we are saying we will obey laws that we judge to be sound. If we obey the laws that seem right to us, then we obey only when a law passes our judgment or suits our purpose. This approach forgets that God gave every law. It enthrones the self. Thus, if we disobey any law, we disobey God. We are not simply disobeying His law; we are rejecting Himas Lord and Lawgiver.
If we pick and choose among the commands, we never really obey God Himself. If we follow only the laws we like, if we obey only laws that we find agreeable, we make ourselves the final arbiter of truth. In effect, we consult with God and possibly gain valuable pointers from Him. But we are still masters of our lives. In this way, obedience is all or nothing. We submit to God totally or not at all.
People do pick and choose among God’s commands. Some would never kill but cheerfully commit fornication and adultery. The murder mentioned in verse 11 might refer to persecution of Christians. But whether physical murder is in view or not, James observes other forms of murder. Favoritism is a kind of murder of the poor. It despises the poor, and that is a form of hate and murder (Matt. 5:21-26). James also mentions judgment of others and condemnation as a kind of verbal murder, sometimes called character assassination.
James heightens the issue by reminding his readers that they will “be judged by the law that give freedom.” Further, “judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful.” We should “speak and act” accordingly (James 2:12-13). The phrase “speak and act” reminds us of the call to be doers of the Word. Judgment is certain and will occur on that basis. Judgment is near in the sense that it will surely happen.
The Law will be our judge. Why? Above all, because God gave the Law. To break the law is to contradict God’s will. Moreover, when we break the Law, we fail to act like His children. We neither walk in His ways nor imitate Him. This is tragic, because the Law gives freedom. Many regard the Law as a restriction, since it forbids their doing whatever they please. But there is a freedom that enslaves. We may be free to divorce a spouse. But divorce very often binds people to loneliness and poverty. We may be free to experiment sexually, but such freedom enslaves us to a life of lust and shallow, broken relationships. Beyond these temporal troubles, sin leads to judgment.
Though James has not been thinking of mercy, it seems that he simply cannot end by declaring judgment “without mercy” (2:13). He doesn’t explain, at this moment, how mercy triumphs over judgment. But he is speaking to believers. We know that mercy triumphs by a simple yet profound process. First, we recognize our sins and repent, grieving over them and intending, by God’s grace, to abandon them. Second, we turn to Jesus as He is offered in the gospel, knowing that “he was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (Rom. 4:25). Believers fail, yet by their faith in the Redeemer, God’s mercy to His children triumphs over the judgment we deserve. In Christ, mercy triumphs.
When a true believer strives to obey and fails, the final word is still grace. For that reason, a sinning, failing Christian never despairs, never descends into self-recrimination. Through Christ, we are united to the triune God. The One who demands mercy shows mercy. For disciples, God’s mercy is always the last word. Of course, Scripture teaches us to ask for mercy. It commands us to pray for forgiveness every day, since, unless we are comatose, we sin every day. But it can be difficult to repent. God’s mercy does not depend on our ability to request it properly.
James 2 stings the complacent believer with several sharp warnings about sin. First, even a “small,” common, all-but-invisible sin such as favoritism has large consequences; by it we fail the tests of true religion. Second, we have no right to pick and choose among God’s commands. If we reject a command because it is unpalatable, we have rejected the Lord who gave that law. These are serious matters. Still, God’s grace is greater than our sin. The gospel goes to sinners, to the unworthy, to the poor in spirit. The Lord is pleased when we obey, yet for all who repent and believe, He loves and forgives even when we fail Him.
James 2:8-13 Study Questions:
How does verses 8-9 continue James’s teaching on favoritism and partiality – and the dangers of both? What do these verses add to the discussion, and how does James ground his teaching in the law of God?
Why is verse 10 surprising and unexpected? In what ways is this statement contrary to what most people think, concerning religious devotion, in your culture today? What does this verse teach us about the character of God?
How does verse 11 further explain and demonstrate the point that James is making in verse 10? What potential danger is he exposing in a potential attitude and approach to the law of God? In what ways might verses 10-11 drive us to our knees and confront us with our desperate need for Jesus?
What does James assert about “judgment” in verse 12? On what basis will we all be judged, according to James, and why is this important? Why must every Christian understand this truth?
While James speaks frankly about judgment, he doesn’t speak of judgment unaccompanied by mercy. What is encouraging about his mention of “mercy” in verse 13? What does he say about the “mercy” of God? Why is this a deeply encouraging conclusion to this passage, and how does it relate to the work of Jesus Christ?